On 16 February, Black Panther was released in the US to a tidal wave of excitement, especially in the African American community – and why not, given its unapologetic blackness, its undeniable coolness and its overall excellence. Featuring great acting, sumptuous costumes, luscious landscapes, action, intrigue, CGI etc., Black Panther had something for everyone – including, as it turns out, people in the art world. Fifteen minutes into the movie, after a few crucial plot points are pinned down, we see an establishing shot: a gleaming white Richard Meier building with a gaudy ‘Museum of Great Britain’ sign on the front. This is the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, standing in as a fictionalized version of the British Museum, we suppose. The next shot is that of a person we will come to know as Killmonger, his back facing us, looking at a vitrine filled with African artifacts. He has apparently requested that the curator in charge of the installation – a soignée white woman who saunters in with a coffee cup and a falsely modest hesitation in her voice – be summoned so he can ask some sly questions:
Killmonger: I was just checking out these artifacts. They tell me you’re the expert.
Curator: Ah. You could say that.
K: They’re beautiful. Where’s this one from?
C: The Bobo Ashanti tribe. Present-day Ghana, 19th century.
K: F’real? What about this one?
C: This one’s from the Edo people of Benin, 16th century.
K: Now, tell me about this one.
C: Also from Benin, 7th century. Fula tribe, I believe.
C: I beg your pardon?
K: It was taken by British soldiers in Benin, but it’s from Wakanda. And it’s made of vibranium. [Chuckles.] Don’t trip. I’mma take it off your hands for you.
C: [Confused] These items are not for sale.
K: How do you think your ancestors got these? You think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it like they took everything else?
A few seconds later, the curator is lying dead on the floor. Killmonger grabs the Wakandan artifact, along with another mask – the latter just because he’s ‘feeling it’.
I’m hard pressed to recall any Hollywood blockbuster that so directly addresses questions of colonization and, especially, of the theft of cultural objects, of repatriation and of the complicity of museums built to house such loot. (The thinly veiled reference to the British Museum – which has long been lobbied to return the spoils of its imperial adventures, from the Parthenon Marbles to the Benin Bronzes – was hardly coincidental.) The scene only lasts three minutes, but it establishes Killmonger, at least in my eyes, as the hero of the film – not the Black Panther, the scion of a royal family who struggles to maintain the status quo, ultimately acceding to incremental change (the classic liberal), but the revolutionary: the man willing to destroy the perfect idyll of Wakanda in order to bring liberation to the masses. For Killmonger, decolonizing museums is a necessary step in this emancipation.
A little over a month after the movie premiered, the Brooklyn Museum – a long-established, encyclopedic institution at the heart of one of New York’s most rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods, with, ironically, one of the most diverse curatorial teams in the US – announced two new appointments. One, that of Drew Sawyer, a white man hired to curate contemporary photography, was received without much fanfare. The other, that of a white woman, Kirsten Windmuller-Luna, hired to be the Sills Family Consulting Curator of the museum’s African department, created a massive outcry – at least in part because of that scene in Black Panther. In posts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, commentators appended their incredulity at the tone-deafness of the museum’s hire to a still from the movie. It became a synecdoche for the basis of their critique: namely, that black people know more about African culture than white colonizers ever will.
Major scholars in the field of African art weighed in, giving interviews and writing op-eds that appeared in the mainstream press, including The New York Times. Professor Steven Nelson of UCLA pointed out the demographic realities of the field. (At PhD level, it is dominated by white women.) Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu of Princeton and the curator Okwui Enwezor both attested to Windmuller-Luna’s knowledge and capacity to do the job, while looking askance at the idea that one’s ability to curate art should be tied to one’s racial identity.
A little over a month later, while the controversy was still raging, the long-planned launch of my book, Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts (2018), took place – at the Brooklyn Museum. It was an awkward and serendipitous alignment, given that the text is about the ways in which arts institutions are in the business of protecting whiteness. It was fitting, then, that a book which argued that museums cannot be considered neutral platforms for debate but are, rather, part of the debate – whether they want to be or not – should be launched at a location that was actively being protested online and, thanks to the activist group Decolonize This Place, on site.
The question of the African art curator’s hiring hung heavily over the event. Members of Decolonize This Place were in the audience: the group has long been a critic of the museum’s role in the gentrification of the neighbourhood, among other issues, and seemed to treat the current controversy as an opportunity to revisit its place within larger systems of white supremacy and colonial exploitation. They took a break from demonstrating outside the museum to attend the book launch, perhaps hoping that the museum’s director, Anne Pasternak, who was in attendance, would answer directly their repeated calls for action. They were disappointed on this front, as no one from the museum spoke, save for a brief introduction by the head of public programmes. If there were any doubt that the Hollywood blockbuster was framing people’s responses to the Brooklyn Museum, at least one person in the audience asked about my thoughts on the uproar – which ended with her giving the cross-armed Wakanda salute.
The woman’s question, like most of the debate about the curatorial hire, turned largely upon matters of expertise. The museum and its defenders pointed out that the new appointee was highly trained, with an Ivy League imprimatur and a long list of mentors willing to vouch for her capabilities. Critics made the obvious (and not insignificant) observation that, as long as museums insisted an Ivy League doctorate was a necessary credential, the possibility of hiring a black curator in any field was severely curtailed – given how few black students were admitted to such programmes.
But it seems to me that to focus on expertise is a misreading of that three-minute clip of Black Panther, and that the public outcry over the hire was of a much more fundamental, and devastating, nature. When the movie first came out, I posted about the museum scene on Facebook, and was struck by how many of my friends were fixated on the cup of coffee the curator holds while speaking to Killmonger in the gallery. Perhaps this is unsurprising – I have a lot of curators and conservators in my friends list, and they found this detail especially irritating, as a sign that Hollywood (once again) has no idea how museums work, because no curator worth her salt would ever bring food or drink in close proximity to valuable relics. (It occurs to me that the coffee cup is only the second most unrealistic thing about the curator – the first is that she would even come down to the galleries at all, especially when summoned, not by a rich collector or celebrity, but by a young black man with locs and a fade, in saggy jeans, with a gold-plated grill in his mouth, all hip-hop
style save the slightly scholarly glasses on his face.)
But the coffee cup was crucial, it seems to me – not only as a plot device (the coffee was poisoned), but as a signal of what was at stake. It was not (or not only) that the curator didn’t know the history of the objects she was responsible for; it was that she didn’t care enough to keep them safe. She feigned expertise when she lacked the more crucial quality that every curator should have – the word ‘curate’ means, quite literally, ‘to care for’. The coffee was a sign of her inability to do the most important part of her job – and was all the more damning because it pointed out the racism, not only of the curator herself, but of the institution in which she operated, which cared more about black interlopers than about the art on its walls. ‘You’ve got all this security in here watching me ever since I walked in,’ says Killmonger, before he steals (or repatriates?) the objects. ‘But you ain’t checking for what you put in your body.’ The racism of the institution, in other words, will be its own demise.
Main Image: Ryan Coogler, Black Panther, 2018, film stills. Courtesy: Marvel Studios
First published in Issue 199